Linda’s son bought 11 bottles of vodka in his final 10 days.  She’s now pushing for changes to liquor licensing laws

Linda’s son bought 11 bottles of vodka in his final 10 days. She’s now pushing for changes to liquor licensing laws

The mother of a Melbourne man who died of alcohol toxicity is pushing for changes to liquor licensing laws and for greater scrutiny for people who sell alcohol to problem drinkers.

Linda Smart’s son, Ashley, died in January 2021 just hours after buying his 11th bottle of vodka in 10 days — all from the same Liquorland franchise in Footscray.

Ms Smart claims he was intoxicated when he made the purchase, and not for the first time.

“He was very, very drunk. He came home with a bottle,” she told 7.30.

“I said to him, ‘Ashley, why? Why did you buy it?’ And he says, ‘Mum, they sell it to me. They don’t care.’

“And I left him about half past four. And he turned his computer off at six o’clock and he never woke up.”

She found him in his flat days later.

“He hadn’t been in touch. I was worried. I had my father’s funeral on Thursday. And on Friday morning, I rushed to Ashley’s place because I was worried,” Ms Smart said.

“And he’d been there four days.”

Man with a beard wearing a blue hoodie.
Linda Smart’s son Ashley was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.(Supplied)

In Victoria, liquor licensing laws are supposed to stop bars and bottle shops from serving anyone who is intoxicated, which Ms Smart said her son would have been most days.

“I watched him being sold alcohol on many occasions drunk, and I couldn’t intervene and ask them to stop selling.”

While the law seems clear, enforcement is nearly impossible.

The Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission told Ms Smart that in order to reach the burden of proof, it is “best practice” for one of its inspectors to witness the intoxicated person being served — a huge hurdle with fewer than 50 inspectors monitoring almost 25,000 licensed venues.

They instead reviewed the CCTV footage of Ashley’s final purchase, which had no sound, and said he did not look drunk.

Bank statement showing purchases of alcohol.
In the 10 days leading up to his death, Ashley Smart bought 11 bottles of vodka.(Supplied)

The inspector told Ms Smart he would recommend a change to the law be considered to include selling alcohol to people with substance abuse issues.

In a statement, commission chair Fran Thorn said they conducted a comprehensive review.

“As our investigation involves sensitive information, we are unable to publicly share any detailed information about the investigation,” the statement said.

“However, we were unable to establish a breach of the Act based on the available evidence.”

Liquorland said it was unable to comment on the case, but said it was committed to the responsible service of alcohol.

“All our store team members undertake industry-leading training in the responsible service of alcohol,” the retailer told 7.30.

Alcohol industry ‘exploited the pandemic as a marketing opportunity’

Like many, COVID-19 hit Ashley Smart hard, exacerbating his mental health issues and his problem drinking.

He was not alone — the pandemic had significant impacts on Australians’ drinking habits.

One study found that in 2021, the number of Australians drinking alcohol hit its highest level in five years and bottle shops were reaping the benefits.

There was almost a 30 per cent increase in alcohol retail sales between 2019 and 2021 and along with it, jumps in alcohol-related ambulance callouts and alcohol-induced deaths.

Alcohol Change Victoria’s Sarah Jackson said the alcohol industry exploited the pandemic as a marketing opportunity.

Woman wearing a light purple shirt, sitting in a living room.
Sarah Jackson says the industry encouraged consumers to turn to alcohol as a way to cope with the pandemic.(ABC News: Lauren Day)

“They had this captive audience of people at home in isolation and we saw quite predatory marketing, quite explicit messaging encouraging people to turn to alcohol as a way to survive and cope,” she told 7.30.

Ms Jackson believes the regulator needs more powers and funding to better protect problem drinkers.

“We need the regulator to be much, much better resourced, much more funding, and an increase in that manpower,” she told 7.30.

“We also need more meaningful sanctions; a real risk that someone who supplies alcohol to someone who is intoxicated might lose their license or might have their license suspended.”

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